Background: In malaria endemic regions people are commonly infected with multiple species of malaria parasites but the clinical impact of these Plasmodium co-infections is unclear. Differences in transmission seasonality and transmission intensity between endemic regions have been suggested as important factors in determining the effect of multiple species co-infections.
Principal findings: In order to investigate the impact of multiple-species infections on clinical measures of malaria we carried out a cross-sectional community survey in Malawi, in 2002. We collected clinical and parasitological data from 2918 participants aged >6 months, and applied a questionnaire to measure malaria morbidity. We examined the effect of transmission seasonality and intensity on fever, history of fever, haemoglobin concentration ([Hb]) and parasite density, by comparing three regions: perennial transmission (PT), high intensity seasonal transmission (HIST) and low intensity seasonal transmission (LIST). These regions were defined using multi-level modelling of PCR prevalence data and spatial and geo-climatic measures. The three Plasmodium species (P. falciparum, P. malariae and P. ovale) were randomly distributed amongst all children but not adults in the LIST and PT regions. Mean parasite density in children was lower in the HIST compared with the other two regions. Mixed species infections had lower mean parasite density compared with single species infections in the PT region. Fever rates were similar between transmission regions and were unaffected by mixed species infections. A history of fever was associated with single species infections but only in the HIST region. Reduced mean [Hb] and increased anaemia was associated with perennial transmission compared to seasonal transmission. Children with mixed species infections had higher [Hb] in the HIST region.
Conclusions: Our study suggests that the interaction of Plasmodium co-infecting species can have protective effects against some clinical outcomes of malaria but that this is dependent on the seasonality and intensity of malaria transmission.